A Merciless Place

Emma Christopher

Tells the extraordinary story - lost for two centuries - of how a failed British attempt to establish a penal colony in West Africa led to their eventual decision to abandon their African plans and establish a new colony in the recently discovered colony known as New South Wales


This is a story lost to history for over two hundred years; a dirty secret of failure, fatal misjudgement and desperate measures which the British Empire chose to forget almost as soon as it was over.

In the wake of its most crushing defeat, the America War of Independence, the British Government began shipping its criminals to West Africa. Some were transported aboard ships going to pick up their other human cargo: African slaves. When they arrived at their destination, soldiers and even convicts were forced to work in the region's slave-trading forts guarding the human merchandise.

In a few short years the scheme brought death, wholesale desertions, mutiny, piracy and even murder. Some of the most egregious crimes were not committed by the exported criminals but by those sent out to guard them. Acts of wanton desperation added to rash transgressions as those whom society had already thrown out realised that they had nothing left to lose.

As jail and prison hulks overflowed, and as every other alternative settlement proved unsuitable, the British Government gambled and decided to send its criminals as far away as possible, to the great south land sighted years before by Captain James Cook. Out of the embers of the African debacle came the modern nation of Australia.

The extraordinary tale is now being told for the first time - how a small band of good-for-nothing members of the British Empire spanned the world from America, to Africa, and on to Australia, profoundly if utterly unwittingly changing history.


Winner, AHA (Australian Historical Association) Kay Daniels Award , 2012
Short-listed, NSW Premier's History Awards, General History Prize, 2011
Short-listed, QLD Premier's Literary Awards, History Book Award, 2011
Winner, Ernest Scott Prize, 2011

Emma Christopher gained her PhD from University College London in 2002 and has also studied at the University of Pennsylvania and taught at the University of Toronto. She has received grants and fellowships from the British Academy, the Royal Historical Society and Harvard University's Atlantic World Centre. She has also been a Mellon Fellow at the Huntington Library in California, a Caird Fellow at the National Maritime Museum in London and a Paul Cuffe Fellow at Mystic Seaport Museum, Connecticut. She has been a member of Harvard's annual Atlantic World Seminar and attended a UNESCO slave route project in West Africa. She currently holds two Australia Research Council fellowships and is on the faculty of the Department of History at the University of Sydney.

Price: AUD $35.00(NZ$39.99)
ISBN: 9781742372273
Format: Paperback - C format
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Imprint: Allen & Unwin
Number of pages: 456
Publication Date: August 2010
Edition Number:

Reader reviews

'Most Australians are aware of the origins of the First Fleet – that it was England's way of getting rid of her criminals by sending them as far away as possible. Prior to 1788, convicts had been sent to America but that practice ceased after the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

A Merciless Place relates what happened to many convicts in the intervening years, and it is both powerful and disturbing reading. The beginning of Sydney Cove has been described as hell on earth, but it was almost paradise compared to what happened on the slave coast of West Africa.

The author's historical research is meticulous and detailed, but the litany of failure and disaster can numb the reader after a while. The best chapters are where we gain insight into specific individuals such as the upper-class conman of many aliases, William Murray Mackenzie, who survived transportation first to Virginia, then Africa, and whose gruesome end at the hands of a relative is particularly shocking even for the cruel age in which he lived.

Essential reading for anyone wanting to learn more of the historical background to the beginning of white settlement in Australia.' - M. Maxwell (read more at The History Bucket)

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